By Jim Cobb – For most people, home is where you will want to be during a crisis. That’s where you have the bulk of your emergency essentials and where you’ll find the assistance and support of your family and possibly your neighbors. But, what if disaster strikes when you are away from home? Many of us spend several hours each day at our jobs, which are often located a considerable distance from our homes. Adding in commute time and errands before or after work, we’re gone for upwards of nine or 10 hours a day. Odds are about even as to whether a crisis will occur while we’re away as opposed to when we’re safe at home. The Get Home Bag list (GHB) is not a “run off to the woods and live off the land” type of survival gear list, nor is it intended to meet your needs indefinitely. Instead, the focus is on having just what you’ll need to get you home or to another safe location in the event you cannot easily drive your normal commute.
What Should Make Your Get Home Bag List?
There are several categories of supplies that need to be included in your get home bag list:
- Medical/First Aid
As we talk about each of these categories in detail, it is important to bear in mind that the GHB must be light enough for you to carry for long periods of time. One of the most common mistakes when assembling a Get Home Bag list is planning too much and overpacking. Therefore, each and every item added to the GHB must be carefully considered as every ounce counts.
You aren’t going to be preparing any five-course meals while you’re trekking home, so skip the jars of home canned venison chili. Focus on food items you can eat on the go. Stick with things like granola bars, protein bars, dried fruit, nuts, and hard candy. Most of us are already carrying surplus calories around our waistlines, so there’s little need to plan for large meals. The goal is simply to reduce or eliminate the rumbling tummy.
If you figure the length of your journey will require at least one night spent in the field, you might consider adding a couple of simple heat-n-eat foods, such as ramen noodles. This, of course, will require you to also have cooking and eating implements with you, which could be as simple as a small mess kit like those carried by Boy Scouts from coast to coast. The thing to remember, though, is almost all foods like this will require water in the cooking process, which cuts into the supply you’ll have for staying hydrated.
You might consider adding a small fishing kit or a few animal snares as well. However, hopefully, you’ll be on the move most of the time, rather than sitting and waiting for a bite.
Water is a crucial component of life and the #1 emergency essential. While the old adage says you can survive three days without water, you really don’t want to be a test case. The problem, though, is water is heavy and there’s nothing you can do about that. You can’t make it lighter or less bulky, it is what it is. A gallon of water weighs a little over eight pounds. While picking up a gallon poses little problem for many people, coupled with all your other gear and carrying it for miles on end may wear you out.
To satisfy your hydration needs, you have a couple of different options. You could carry all of your water with you, figuring approximately one gallon of water per day of travel. Or, and this is my preference, carry some water with you but also have in your GHB the means to filter and disinfect additional water found during your journey. Two liters of water, split between two bottles, will weigh about five pounds, figuring in the weight of the bottles themselves. Having multiple containers gives you the ability to carry potable water in at least one of them at all times.
For filtration and disinfection, there are a number of portable devices on the market today, with Berkey, Katadyn, Aquamira, LifeStraw and Sawyer being the most well-known brands. There are even water bottles with the filters built right in.
This category encompasses everything that will help protect you from the elements. Hypothermia is a very real threat, even in mild weather. It is important you have a way to keep yourself warm and dry. Clothing is your first line of defense. If your job requires you to dress in suits or skirts, I highly recommend you have a change of clothes in your GHB. You will appreciate having durable, comfortable clothing for your hike. Be sure to have a pair of shoes or boots, as well as at least one pair (preferably two) of thick socks. What I’ve done is set up a separate small bag with a complete change of clothes and a pair of hiking boots. This bag sits alongside my GHB. Should I end up having to start trekking home on foot, the first thing I’d do is change into my travel attire, leaving my business clothes behind. I also keep one extra pair of socks in my GHB, just in case I end up having to wade through high water and my feet get soaked.
Most people who live in areas of the country that experience seasonal swings in temperature likely already have jackets, hats, and such on their person when they leave the house during cold weather. However, I suggest adding an extra hat, a pair of mittens or gloves, and other similar items to your Get Home Bag list during those times of year when they’d likely be needed.
A couple of good quality emergency blankets, sometimes called space blankets, will go far toward keeping you warm and dry, particularly if you stop to rest for the evening. I do not suggest purchasing these from discount retailers or dollar stores, as you’ll find the quality severely lacking. You need emergency blankets that are durable and aren’t going to fall into shreds the first time you open the package.
Along those same lines, consider purchasing a small folding poncho. They weigh next to nothing and if the rain is pouring down, they will help you keep at least reasonably dry. In a pinch, you could use a heavy-duty garbage bag, cutting a hole for your head and two more for your arms. Garbage bags can also be used to carry gear or laid flat on the ground so you don’t end up with a wet behind after sitting.
Some folks who expect to travel quite a distance include a small tent or at least a tarp in their GHBs. This is a judgment call. Doing so adds considerable weight and bulk to the pack but having a tube tent or a tarp could be very beneficial if you’ll be spending more than a night or two on the road.
No matter where you live, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses will certainly prove useful if you’re traveling on foot. Sunscreen and lip balm are also highly recommended. Around here, the mosquitoes come large enough to qualify as low-flying aircraft so insect repellent is also a must.
We also include fire-starting gear in the shelter category. These supplies include strike anywhere matches, a ferro rod, butane lighters, and ready-to-light tinder such as dryer lint or cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly. Be sure to have at least three different ways to light a fire, just in case something gets lost or breaks.
You will likely not need a ton of medical supplies but you should have at least a small first aid box. Contents should include adhesive bandages, gauze wrap, pain relievers, antacids, anti-diarrhea medication, moleskin for blisters, and perhaps tweezers for splinters. The idea isn’t to be able to perform open-heart surgery, but just to get you home in one piece.
If you have prescription medication you must take on a regular basis, plan on including enough doses in your GHB to last you for your trip home.
While one day without brushing your teeth won’t kill you, being able to keep reasonably clean will help prevent illness and infection. In your hygiene kit for the GHB, include a travel size toothbrush and toothpaste as well as a small wash cloth and bar of soap. Hand sanitizer should be used after going to the bathroom and it can also double as a fire starter, due to the alcohol content.
There are natural alternatives to toilet paper but most of them are substantially less than ideal. Remove the cardboard tube from a roll of toilet paper, then put the roll into a plastic bag and crush it flat to save space in your pack.
Depending upon where you work and how far it is from home, this category may not be absolutely necessary. I mean, if you work 10 miles from home, you probably know each and every route blindfolded. Even so, a compass and a map of the area can help prevent you from getting turned around should you need to deviate from your normal routes due to storm damage, road closures, or other reasons.
Being able to send and receive information can be vital during a disaster or its aftermath. Of course, the ubiquitous cell phone is likely the first and best option. But, plan ahead for the possibility you can’t get a signal, your battery dies, or the phone is lost.
While pay phones are few and far between today, they are still out there if you look carefully. It is a good idea to keep in your GHB a list of important phone numbers as well as some loose change for making calls. Remember, if your phone dies or is lost, you won’t be able to access your contacts list so have those numbers written down.
There are many different models of small crank-powered radios on the market. Most of them work very well and will allow you to listen to news broadcasts and keep abreast of developments related to the crisis.
Given that we have no reliable way of predicting the future, try as we might, it is conceivable that you may have a need to signal for help. Perhaps you are injured and need assistance or you get turned around in the woods and can’t find your way out. The sound of a whistle carries much further than shouting, plus you won’t lose your voice. A signal mirror works well, during the day only, of course. At night, a glow stick can be activated and tied to the end of a length of cord, then spun around to create a large circle of light that can be seen from quite a distance.
This can be a tricky category, but I do believe you should have some method of defending yourself, just in case. For many people, the method of choice is a firearm, typically a hand gun. If you decide to go that route, please do everyone a favor and seek out training on the proper use of the weapon.
Other options for security that might make your Get Home Bag list are pepper spray, stun guns, and batons. I do not recommend relying upon a knife for defense unless you have received the proper training in its use. Otherwise, you are far more likely to have it taken away from you and used against you.
In this category, we have a few different odds and ends that, while perhaps not strictly necessary for survival, sure make life easier. First and foremost is a good quality knife.
This is not an area where you should skimp and buy something cheap. You want a knife that is sturdy and that will retain a sharp edge. Remember, you are more likely to be injured using a dull knife than a sharp one. With that in mind, consider adding a small knife sharpener as well.
A multi-tool, such as those produced by Leatherman or Gerber, are very useful. It is one of those things that, once you have one, you’ll wonder how you got along without it.
A flashlight or headlamp will be very welcome after the sun goes down and you are still on the road. Be sure to have at least one set of extra batteries. There are, of course, crank powered flashlights available, which will save you from needing the batteries.
Duct tape is also highly recommended. It has a million and one uses, including patching rips in clothing. Wrap several feet of it around a pencil to cut down on the weight and bulk of carrying the whole roll. Cordage is important as well. I suggest paracord, due to its strength. Paracord consists of several thin strands of cord covered in a fabric sheath. If need be, you can remove one or more of those smaller strands and use them separately, increasing the total footage of cord you have available to you. What I do is take an old plastic gift card and cut a notch at each end. Then, I wedge one end of the paracord into a notch and wrap the cord around the card several times, then slipping the end into the other notch. This keeps the cord from getting tangled in my pack.
Another highly useful item is a shemagh, also known as a headscarf. You’ve probably seen our military forces wearing these in the Middle East, as that is where this item originated. The shemagh is a square piece of fabric, usually around three feet on a side. It has many uses, such as wrapping it around your mouth and nose to protect against dust and debris or dampening it and placing it around your neck to cool down. In cold weather, it can be another layer of warmth. In a pinch, you could even wrap a few items inside it and carry it hobo style at the end of a stick.
One last item to consider, and this doesn’t neatly fit into any of the Get Home Bag lists of categories above, is something inspirational to you. A few photos of your family or a small religious text of your choice may help give you extra motivation when the going gets rough.
How Do I Carry all This Stuff?
There is a reason why I saved this discussion for after the Get Home Bag list. I highly recommend you first determine what needs to be carried in your GHB, then go out and find a suitable pack or bag for it. Frequently, people will buy the pack first and then either find it is too small for their Get Home Bag list, and this is far more common, they will buy a pack that is entirely too large, then feel compelled to fill it.
The ideal for most people is going to be a backpack. By carrying your supplies on your back, you free up your hands. Plus, it is less fatiguing to carry your gear on your back than over your shoulder or in your hands.
The pack should be well made and durable. Avoid the cheap ones you’ll find at back-to-school sales, unless you simply cannot afford anything better. The shoulder straps should be padded and a waist belt is a bonus. It is very important to field test the pack after purchasing it. Load it up, strap it on, and walk around for at least a couple of hours. It should be comfortable and not so heavy you feel like a pack mule.
A great idea would be to visit a camping store, such as Gander Mountain or REI, and talk to an employee there about backpacks. They can recommend certain styles of packs based on your body shape and other factors. You need not necessarily spend a couple hundred dollars on a pack, but by taking their recommendations into account, you should be able to find something more affordable.
There are also a number of “sling packs,” which are basically one strap backpacks. The strap runs across your body, from shoulder to opposite hip. Provided you don’t weigh them down too heavily, these can be a great option.
Avoid anything along the lines of a rolling suitcase or duffel bag. These just aren’t made for use on anything other than a hard, smooth surface like pavement. What will end up happening is you’ll need to pick it up and carry it over rough terrain and these sorts of cases just aren’t very light to begin with, let alone loaded down with your supplies.
How do I Maintain the Get Home Bag?
At least a couple of times a year completely unpack the GHB and inspect all of the contents. Check expiration dates on all the food items and change out any stored water. Any batteries should also be rotated out and replaced with fresh ones. Carefully examine the pack and gear for wear marks and other signs of deterioration.
What I do is to add GHB inspection to the list of things you do when the clocks change, right along with testing your smoke detectors. In the fall, you could add the cold weather gear we talked about in the Shelter section and remove it in the spring, should you wish to do so.
Consider this Get Home Bag list your lifeline to safety and treat it accordingly. Keep it with you at work or in your vehicle, so it is ready at a moment’s notice. While it may turn out to be an item you never truly need, it is far better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Originally published in Countryside September / October 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.